cover image Memoirs


Robert Lowell, edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (464p) ISBN 978-0-374-25892-4

Poet Lowell (1917–1977) looks back in amusement, angst, and madness in these scintillating memoirs. The work consists of mostly unpublished autobiographical writings by Lowell—a pioneering confessional poet and America’s 1947–1948 poet laureate—and includes unfinished memoirs of his boyhood and his fraught relationships with his domineering mother, who was obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte, and his feckless, decidedly un-Napoleonic father; accounts of his manic-depressive episodes, which sometimes landed him in jail or the psych ward; and published reminiscences of literary acquaintances, from poets Ezra Pound and Robert Frost to political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Lowell freely inserts surreal fantasies and fictional elements, including imagined scenes from his parents’ courtship, along with sensuous, Proustian renderings of decor and vivid character sketches. Throughout, his writing is full of subtle, witty, and slightly off-kilter evocations of people (“Father’s voice made me think of a robot criticizing strawberry shortcake”), psychotic breaks (“I felt as if I were squatting on the bottom of a huge laboratory bottle and trying to push out the black rubber stopper before I stifled”), and poetry (the “terrible audacity, rightness and ease” of Sylvia Plath’s verses “make most other poems sound like birthday odes to George the First”). Lowell’s rich language and startling perceptiveness are nothing short of captivating. (Aug.)